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4-star: ‘Painful' budget cuts loom for sailors

Feb. 4, 2013 - 09:24AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 4, 2013 - 09:24AM  |  
Adm. Bill Gortney, head of Fleet Forces Command, observes flight operations Jan. 30 aboard the carrier Harry S. Truman. Gortney sat down with Navy Times to discuss some of the top issues affecting the fleet.
Adm. Bill Gortney, head of Fleet Forces Command, observes flight operations Jan. 30 aboard the carrier Harry S. Truman. Gortney sat down with Navy Times to discuss some of the top issues affecting the fleet. (MC3 Lorenzo Burleson / Navy)

Thousands of sailors deployed indefinitely with their flight hours slashed. They'll be at sea longer, but with fewer chances for port visits. Meanwhile at home, training is crushed. Family and support programs face cutbacks. And for those wanting a chance to get out to sea — for a deployment, or even just an exercise — it's not looking good.

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Thousands of sailors deployed indefinitely with their flight hours slashed. They'll be at sea longer, but with fewer chances for port visits. Meanwhile at home, training is crushed. Family and support programs face cutbacks. And for those wanting a chance to get out to sea — for a deployment, or even just an exercise — it's not looking good.

For months, Congress' resistance to pass a fiscal 2013 budget has forecast havoc on all the services. Now, in a series of memos, all-hands meetings and interviews, Navy leaders are finally speaking out on what that could mean for sailors.

The reason they're speaking out? The worst-case scenario is starting to look like the most likely scenario.

Right now, Congress is funding the government at 2012 levels, under a continuing resolution. If Congress decides to extend that for the rest of the year, that would mean $4.6 billion in cuts.

The Navy has already taken certain measures, effective immediately. These include:

• Curtailing fleet training events, including training unrelated to units preparing to deploy.

• A civilian hiring freeze.

• Slashing nonmission-essential travel.

But these measures are only the opening act. The Navy faces an additional $4 billion in automatic spending cuts in March.

These cuts come as a result of a 2010 law that set up a legal trigger, known as sequestration, which would reduce the Pentagon's budget by $55 billion every year over a decade. It was a measure intended to force lawmakers to reach a long-term debt deal. But that deal never happened.

The Navy was cautious at first and hesitant to describe the ramifications of sequestration. To do so would be premature, officials said. But now with another deadline bearing down and lawmakers deadlocked, leaders such as Fleet Forces Commander Adm. Bill Gortney have lost faith that Congress will avert disaster.

"I think they want sequestration," Gortney said in an exclusive interview with Navy Times on Jan. 28.

The Fleet Forces chief, who's been the fleet's top boss for about four months, spoke candidly about the risks of sequestration and the devastating effects it will have on the deck plates.

"This CR, sequestration debate has fallen on the fleet," Gortney acknowledged, adding that the "most dangerous" scenario is looking likely.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert has said that these steep cuts would "hollow" the fleet, cuts that many defense analysts believe Congress will put off again. But the CNO offered alarming new details in a Jan. 25 Navy budget planning document — the first extensive picture of what a shortchanged fleet would look like.

The only upside: Military pay and benefits will not be immediately affected by the cuts.

Deployed operations will suffer, but the hardest hit may be those back home. Work-ups will be curtailed and all ops other than cruise preparations will be shelved as the Navy's available funds flow to ready deploying ships and squadrons. All exercises will be canceled. And four of the nine carrier air wings will be grounded — it would take them as long as a year to regain their normal readiness.

Gortney said training gaps will lead to a stressed fleet and increased risk to his sailors.

"I know from history, from personal experience, I know this is going to be painful and cost a lot," he said in the sit-down in his Norfolk, Va., office. "What I don't want to do is experience those mishaps."

These mishaps could occur should the Navy be forced to meet operational demands too quickly, after these cuts have wrecked the force. When the money does return, Gortney estimates it will cost three times the savings and take untold months to return the fleet to the proper readiness level.

"I can tell you, there will be mishaps. Airplanes will crash because aircrews will not have the proper skill set," Gortney said. "That's one of the reasons we will not go any faster than is safe."

Ships tied at the pier

The Navy's priority will be to fund fiscal 2013 and 2014 deployments, Gortney said. The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group is set to deploy early this year. The carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower returned home in late December and is getting a deck resurfacing before deploying again.

Greenert's memo states that should sequestration occur, the Ike and Truman CSGs could be "extended indefinitely."

Gortney, however, said that funding is in place to train up sailors aboard the carriers George H.W. Bush on the East Coast and Nimitz on the West Coast. It may be those sailors who get stuck at sea, providing the two-carrier requirement in U.S. Central Command.

There are many details that need to be fleshed out over the next weeks to months, Navy officials concede, and fleet commanders will make the final decision in terms of what ships deploy and the length of those deployments.

"They may be out there awhile," Gortney said of the CSGs.

So, how long is that?

"Well, until someone relieves us of the requirement, or they're no longer mission-effective," he said. "At the end of the day, I've invested in their training. They're forward-deployed. I don't have to retrain them. The problem is, how long can we keep them ready at a proper level out there on deployment until their reliefs are properly trained?"

That's a big question mark, especially since training is one of the key savings the Navy is planning to make in the event of the steep automatic spending cuts.

The normal maintenance and crew rebuilding that usually occur once a ship returns from the deployment will not happen.

"We're going to tie the ships up at the pier. We're going to shut air wings down, and they're just going to do the absolute minimum," Gortney said. "Because I have to preserve the training and readiness dollars to get these next deployers out the door. I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul. It's a good time to be Paul. It's not a good time to be Peter."

When asked what units will play "Peter" in this scenario, Gortney gave two examples. Ike, once it deploys again and comes back, and the air wing for now-inactive carrier Enterprise.

As the fleet grapples with these scenarios, sailors' pay is secure — for now. Military pay, selective re-enlistment bonuses, retirements, promotions and tuition assistances are safe in fiscal 2013, confirmed Cmdr. Kathy Kesler, spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel.

"Navy leadership is committed to doing what we can to protect sailor and family benefits support programs," she added. "However, there is a possibility that there will be impacts to these programs."

To what extent is unclear.

Right now, officials said, the budget impasse has not affected permanent change-of-station moves. But as recently as 2011, operating under continuing resolutions caused delays for tens of thousands of troops in moving to their next commands.

So why doesn't the Navy cut into acquisition programs to avoid these tough cuts?

"Congress hasn't given us the authority," Gortney said. So that means the "fungible" funds are in flight hours, steaming days, deep maintenance and civilian pay.

The long-term ramifications remain unclear. Sequestration would disrupt the Navy's maintenance cycles for ships, which range from 27 to 36 months, depending on the class, Gortney said. If you defer needed overhauls long enough, there's a risk that ships won't last as long as they were expected to, intensifying pressure on the future fleet.

Sailors might disregard the civilian cuts, but that would be a mistake. Their 22 days of unpaid leave, a result of sequestration, would also pose serious problems for the fleet.

Gortney said he would experience that hardship firsthand. A civilian comptroller on his staff has 41 years of experience. And while he "hasn't seen anything like this," he knows how to "lead our wake and make a right decision through here to get us out."

Now imagine this individual having to drop everything to go on weeks of unpaid leave.

"I have to furlough him," Gortney said. "I have to furlough part of my brain!"

And who's likely to pick up the critical civilian work? The men and women in uniform.

‘It's not pleasant'

While there's little consensus among defense analysts about what will happen in the latest showdown, most believe these substantial cuts have sown uncertainty in the military and the defense industry and threaten to indiscriminately harm the Navy's programs across the board.

"We're going to be able to deliver less ready deployed platforms" if these cuts take effect, said retired Vice Adm. Peter Daly, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Naval Institute. "That means we're going to have to curtail what we deliver and only focus on the most important areas and in the long run, if you keep doing this, you're going to shorten the life of our Navy."

The fleet's size was a hotly debated issue in last year's presidential election, with the candidate advocating a leaner Navy winning the contest. But even small-Navy partisans view automatic spending cuts as the wrong tool: a club where a scalpel is needed.

"This is no way to run a railroad," said retired Capt. Lawrence Korb, who served as an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration. "Good heavens. The Navy budget is larger than the entire Chinese military budget and you're going to run this thing, this way? It's no way to do it."

Korb, a defense analyst with the liberal Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., said this is a potentially messy process that doesn't give Navy leaders enough say on where to take the cuts. Indeed, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus asked for this type of authority in the event of cuts in a Jan. 23 speech.

But Korb also supports the overall size of the cuts, which would reverse the Pentagon's ballooning budgets after a decade of war.

Nonetheless, Korb believes the likeliest course of action is that Congress will "kick the can" on the deadline again.

Another defense analyst said he believes the Navy should be facing these tough budget decisions, as the nation's debt mounts. The cuts won't erode the Navy's edge over all its rivals, reasoned Christopher Preble, a defense expert and former naval officer who served in the surface fleet during the 1990s drawdown.

Preble contends the Pentagon needs more scrutiny on its forward-presence demands and shipbuilding plans. He views the Navy's forthcoming details as the latest salvo in the Pentagon's anti-sequester campaign. Alongside the more dire cuts, he notes that the Navy's list includes more mundane items, such as canceling fleet weeks and Blue Angels shows.

"It's not pleasant. I understand that," said Preble, who's a defense analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.

But Daly, the retired three-star and former No. 2 at Fleet Forces Command, argues they will hamstring a Navy already straining under the Pentagon's demands, like that for two carriers in the Persian Gulf or ballistic-missile-defense ships in the Mediterranean. The cuts will degrade operations and imperil the future fleet. But the harm goes beyond that, Daly says.

"My big concern is that our best people will conclude they're not part of an elite organization," Daly said, recalling a stretch in the late 1990s where difficulties ordering aircraft parts at a training squadron led droves of its maintainers to leave the Navy, year upon year.

"My biggest concern is that we'll hemorrhage people and we'll lose the best people first," Daly said.

Safety and taking care of sailors are foremost in the mind of the current FFC commander. Gortney wants to provide them with predictability — something everyone wants but can't get in this budget crisis.

"Our sailors and their families can do amazing things. They will do amazing things," Gortney said. "They just want to know up front what they're going to do. And we want to give them that predictability."

Right now, in today's Navy, that's impossible.

Extreme cuts

Greenert, in a recent memo, outlined two projected rounds of severe Navy cuts.

The document splits the budget crisis impacts into two tiers.

Tier A outlines $4.6 billion in cuts necessary if Congress, in March, decides to extend funding the government at 2012 levels instead of passing a 2013 budget. The list also includes $1.7 billion in savings from stalling "new start" construction and other expenditures.

Tier B, which is much more drastic, is a response necessary should sequestration occur, again in March, causing an additional $4 billion in cuts.

TIER A - $4.6 billion plus $1.7 billion in ‘new starts'

• Cancel 10 third/fourth-quarter ship availabilities in San Diego ($219M):

Destroyers Benfold, Gridley, Higgins, Russell and Sampson; amphibious assault ship Peleliu; amphibious transport dock Green Bay; amphibious dock landing ship Rushmore; and mine countermeasures ships Devastator and Pioneer.

• Cancel 10 third/fourth-quarter ship avails in Norfolk, Va. ($271M):

Destroyers Oscar Austin, Barry, Forrest Sherman, Jason Dunham, Laboon, McFaul, Porter and Winston Churchill; amphibious assault ship Wasp; and aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower.

• Cancel 1 third/fourth-quarter ship avail in New London, Conn. ($45M): Not specified.

• Cancel 1 ship third/fourth-quarter avail in Washington state ($65M): carrier John C. Stennis.

• Cancel 1 ship avail in Mayport, Fla. ($4M): destroyer Farragut.

• Cancel 1 ship avail in Hawaii ($35M): destroyer Chafee.

• Cancel third- and fourth-quarter aircraft maintenance in San Diego; Norfolk; Jacksonville, Fla.; Whidbey Island, Wash.; Lemoore, Calif.; and MCAS Cherry Point, N.C. ($433M).

• Cut 1,121 temporary workers, mostly in shipyards and base operating support ($30M).

• Reduce facilities, sustainment, restoration and modernization by 50 percent ($1.142B).

• Cut base operation support by 10 percent ($363M).

• Cut nonessential travel/conferences ($26M).

• Cut Navy Expeditionary Combat Command by 20 percent ($182M).

• Reduce ship ops, flying hours ($670M).

• Cancel 30 building demolition projects ($62M).

• Delay decommissioning and/or disposal prep ($33M).

• Implement civilian hiring freeze ($70M).

‘New start' deferments

• Military construction projects ($675M).

• Construction of CVN 79 ($608M).

• Aircraft procurements ($150M).

• Research and development ($263M).

• Cancel construction of 1 DDG 51 ($1.4B).

TIER B - $4 billion

• Cancel several attack submarine deployments.

• Flying hours on deployed carriers in Middle East reduced 55 percent; steaming days reduced 22 percent.

• Reduce Western Pacific deployed ops by 35 percent; nondeployed Pacific ships lose 40 percent of steaming days.

• Cancel naval operations in and around South America; cancel all nonballistic missile defense deployments to Europe.

• Reduce BMD patrols in Middle East, Atlantic and Mediterranean.

• Shut down all flying for four of nine carrier air wings in March. Nine to 12 months to restore normal readiness at two to three times the cost.

• Stop nondeployed operations that do not support pre-deployment training.

• Reduce nondeployed operations for pre-deployment training.

• Cut all exercises (e.g., MALABAR, CARAT, Foal Eagle).

• Reduce port visits.

• Furlough most civilians for 22 work days ($448M).

• Defer emergent repairs (fire damage on attack submarine Miami, $294M; collision damage on destroyer Porter, $125M; and attack sub Montpelier, ($41 million).

• Cancel Blue Angels shows in 3rd and 4th quarters ($20M).

• Cancel community outreach programs (Fleet Week).

Additional impacts

• Carriers Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower deployments extended indefinitely.

• Nimitz and George H.W. Bush carrier strike groups will not be fully ready for scheduled fiscal 2013 deployments.

• By Oct. 13, only one Japan-based CSG and ARG will be crisis-ready.

• By Oct. 13, continental U.S. forces will require nine-plus months to deploy, due to maintenance and training curtailments.

• Middle East deployed CSG reduced to one by mid-fiscal 2014.

Staff writers ccavas@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com reader">Christopher P. Cavas and mfaram@militarytimes.com?subject=Question from NavyTimes.com.com reader">Mark D. Faram contributed to this report.

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